How Less Can Be More for Everybody

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Elizabeth Warren’s proposal for a wealth tax on the richest 75,000 families is by far my favorite idea to come from the Democratic presidential field of candidates. Rhetorically, I wish she’d add an argument that addresses this ultra-monied cohort directly, with this basic message:

“If you can understand that sharing some of your extreme wealth won’t cause you a shred of actual deprivation, only an abstract sense of having less, can you also imagine a country in which others have much less because of your increased taxes? Less pain, less poverty, less homelessness, less addiction, less climate insecurity? A country in which there is more health, more housing, more education, more safety, more hope, more contentment?

Can you imagine that in turn would mean more for you? More of a sense of being part of the solution, less of being part of the problem? More of a sense that you are a member of the America nation, rather than the multinational nation of the extremely wealthy? Can your really not imagine an increase in your own personal sense of well-being from seeing a country around you that is better, happier, more unified?”

I think most of the .1% is probably immune to this message, (though their sons and daughters seem to be hearing it more and more.) But this message would really be addressed to the 99.9%, for them to understand the moral and psychological underpinnings of any extreme wealth tax. So many Americans imagine themselves eventual members of this economic class of people, they take “soak the rich” ideas personally. The most tribal among them wouldn’t mind being more prosperous, but can’t bear the idea of their black or brown neighbor benefiting equally — they divide the population between the deserving (them) and the undeserving (others). I don’t know if any message can reach them, but that doesn’t mean it can’t reach those millions in the middle, who don’t really begrudge their neighbors having lives as improved as theirs resulting from a massive wealth transfer.

Perhaps Warren needs to call this a “Happiness Tax.” America, the richest country in the world, never makes it to even the top ten in lists of the happiest countries. Posit to those who would pay more taxes that they would be happier too. (The most charitable among them already get that parting with their money for good reason is the most satisfying thing they do. But philanthropy simply isn’t enough to fix this country.)

We’ve actually done this already. I recently completely a collage from a newspaper I picked up at an antique store in Mason City, Iowa. It’s a “Victory Edition” printed in 1945, with the most prominent articles from the war years reprinted, mixed in with photos of all the local men and women who were in uniform. Interwoven with the sense of grim determination that accompanied the war years, the articles convey an unmistakable sense of national purpose that clearly infused every segment of society at the time. The egalitarian idea that each gave as much as he or she could for the good of all (included devastated Europe) was not experienced as a burden, but a gift. The wealthiest Americans did not complain. They paid their high taxes as an expression of patriotism, and it had everything to do with the Allies successfully winning the war. (I also recently read “The Marshall Plan” by Ben Steil. Our postwar largesse not only saved Europe, but continued high taxation of the rich had everything to do with the mass prosperity of the 1950s.)

This is the America MAGAists want to go back to. Warren — and all the Democrats, frankly — need to steal this message from Donald Trump. The greatest generation wasn’t just great because they stormed the beaches of Omaha. It was also great because everybody dutifully paid their fair share and made sure their government spent it wisely.

P.S. I am fully aware that America was not so great back then for people of color, women, and gays, nor was it any picnic for those whose lives were ruined by McCarthyism. But a modestly-paid job like my father had, selling encyclopedias in 1958, could support a wife and 4 kids, in a very small house in a Denver suburb. That’s because there were working and middle class people who actually had enough disposable income to buy encyclopedias. That’s the sort of distribution of wealth that we can achieve again.

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